I was going to go see Pokémon Detective Pikachu this week because it looked absurdly adorable. Then, I saw that the first film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle was being released in theaters and on demand via iTunes. Dear reader, you do not need my opinion on whether you should see Detective Pikachu or not. People see that kind of movie just for fun, regardless of quality. The works of Shirley Jackson, however, are a particular passion of mine and this adaptation was snuck out in such a low-profile manner, I do not want people to miss it, especially those people who liked the very loose adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House released by Netflix last fall.
In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, sisters Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and Merricat Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga), along with their Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover), carry out an isolated existence on their family estate after the suspicious death of their parents. Although Constance starts to think that their lives could change when their cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) comes to visit, Merricat remains as suspicious of Charles as she is of the townspeople who have ostracized the sisters.
Shirley Jackson often wrote about how cruel and petty ordinary communities can be and in We Have Always Lived in the Castle she pairs that theme with a murder mystery that has been solved from the outset–or so it would seem. In this story, however, most people are as they seem and that makes the story sinister in a unexpected way. Rather than building suspense off of the reader or viewer not knowing what is going to happen, the story is full of dread and anxiety as the family quickly unravels with the arrival of Charles. In the book, Merricat is wild, odd, and childlike, and Taissa Farmiga brings these qualities to the character along with a more muted, almost Wednesday Addams-like sullenness that works better paired with her voiceover narration than it might have otherwise. As Constance, Alexandra Daddario is sweet with a tone of panic just beneath the surface. The characters as written seem like they could fit in a twisted take on a Wes Anderson movie, but without the irony that is usually found in his films. The result, along with the dimness and exaggerated framing of some scenes, creates a film that is unnerving without being outright scary.
Because so much of Shirley Jackson’s genius lies in the complexity and the weirdness of her characters, I think that they can be difficult to adapt well. I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It is beautifully made and solidly acted. I do not think the story will thrill all audiences, but it is worth checking out. 4/5 stars.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was written by Mark Kruger, based on the Shirley Jackson novel, and directed by Stacie Passion. It runs 90 minutes.
Streaming on Netflix, the dark comedy Dead to Me follows the unlikely friendship between Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) after the sudden death of Jen’s husband. The show also features James Marsden as Judy’s fiance, Steve; Brandon Scott as Nick, a bereaved detective; Christopher Doyle as Max, Jen’s business partner; and Sam McCarthy and Luke Roessler as Jen’s sons, Charlie and Henry.
Dead to Me is funny and twisted, but it also delves into the complexity of grief and gradations between different experiences of loss and trauma. I really appreciated the nuanced way that the show treated bereavement, pregnancy loss, and other types of trauma. Underneath the snarky, mysterious main threads of the story, there are some real insights about coping with grief. The acting is also strong, particularly in how Applegate and Cardellini portray both anger and the complexity of their characters’ friendship. The mystery at the heart of the plot unfolds slowly with some big punches at the end. Even though I knew the gist of the story nearly right away, it was still fun and suspenseful to watch unfold. Dead to Me is darker than a lot of comedies and funnier than I would suspect a show about grief would be. I highly recommend it.
Dead to Me was created by Liz Feldman. It runs for ten 30 minute episodes and is rated TV-MA
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